Legalizing abortion reduces crime rates?

August 17, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- The whole thing is enough to make John Donohue nostalgic. "Usually what I write languishes in obscurity," the Stanford law professor says drolly. Not this time.

Professors Donohue and Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, set out innocently enough to look at one of the great puzzles of the research world: Why has the crime rate dropped so sharply, so widely, so quickly, in the 1990s?

The two sleuths found a clue that no one had considered: Roe vs. Wade. These two respected scholars came to the wildly provocative conclusion that the legalization of abortion may explain as much as half of the drop in the crime rate.

To put it simply, those states which had very high rates of abortion right after the Supreme Court ruling in the 1970s had very large declines in crime in the 1990s.

That's true even when you consider myriad other things that influence crime rates: from prison sentencing to policing to jobs. Fewer offenses are being committed today by those under 25 years old.

Born criminals

Before Roe, as Mr. Levitt says, choosing his words carefully, "women who wanted to abort but were denied that opportunity seem to have given birth to children more likely to have become criminals."

After Roe, to put it bluntly, some unwanted fetuses at risk of becoming potential criminals were aborted.

This statistical link -- or leap -- between abortion and crime has set all sorts of teeth on edge. The research was greeted with respect at several academic conferences.

But when it became public, the two novices in the politics of abortion were immediately cast as equal opportunity offenders.

The pro-life community is appalled at their notion that abortion -- which they regard as murder -- reduced crime.

As for the idea that every 10 percent increase in abortion resulted in a 1 percent decrease in crime?

Joe Scheidler, the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League fumed, "It follows logically that to really eliminate crime, you simply need to get rid of everybody."

The pro-choice community, on the other hand, would rather give the whole subject a good leaving alone.

Jeannie Rosoff, president of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which does research in reproductive issues, called the study "interesting," "simplistic," "not improbable" and, finally, "explosive."

Pro-choice leaders are particularly uneasy at any link between race, class, abortion and crime. In this case, the women who chose to have abortions in the wake of the Roe decision were disproportionately teen-agers, minorities and the poor.

What does that say? A way to stop the "breeding" of criminals by class and race and age?

To anyone with a politically sensitive ear, the implication that abortion can prevent crime carries ugly echoes of the days when Social Darwinists wanted to improve society by breeding "good families" and not breeding "bad families."

Government decisions

In the 1920s and '30s, eugenicists supported laws that would put the government in charge of reproductive decisions. At one point there were laws in 31 states to forcibly sterilize the "handicapped" and "feebleminded."

Professors Levitt and Donohue, whose work has been tainted with the charge of eugenics, are by no means promoting abortion as a crime prevention policy.

In fact, their research is a counterpoint to eugenics. They looked at what happened when women -- not the state -- were finally allowed to make their own choices.

As Mr. Levitt says, their work was not "about class or race but about unwantedness."

After Roe, women who knew they weren't ready or able to raise children, had a choice. The children they did have were more likely to be wanted.

Today the abortion rates are at their lowest point since that court decision. That doesn't mean we're due for a crime wave in 2020. It means there are fewer unwanted pregnancies today -- due in large part to contraceptives.

If there's universal agreement on anything in the world of reproduction, it's that birth control is a better way to prevent "unwantedness" than abortion.

Professors Levitt and Donohue set out to answer questions about crime and ended up raising hackles about abortion. Their thesis may or may not hold up to further review. But all in all, it has the whiff of common sense.

As Mr. Levitt offers simply enough, "I think children have better outcomes when mothers want them and have the resources and inclination to have them."

It's what family planners have said all along. It's not really such a puzzle.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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